When I Smell the Fragrance of Heaven in Bulguksa Temple…


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Mid-day in Gyeongju, South Korea…

When the local bus stopped at Bulguksa and the visitors got off the bus, it didn’t mean they had arrived at the temple. Actually all visitors should walk around 200m uphill along a nice walkway to reach the ticket booth. Then walk along a natural path to the temple’s gate.  But while walking the beautiful scenery will surround us in 360. Seems the Koreans love to build temples and monasteries in harmony with the mountains since long time ago.

The walkway was comfortably made, wide and neat, with food or souvenir stalls in each side. The beautiful autumn scenery with red and yellow maple leaves with fresh atmosphere and the happiness of family picnics on the greenery grass removed the tiredness of walking.

And after walking for a while, finally I reached the iconic stone with UNESCO World Heritage Site symbol on it in Roman and Hangul. Bulguksa Temple itself was designated as a World Cultural Asset by UNESCO in 1995, which is home to many important cultural relics.

My heart smiled when I stepped into the natural path, sensing the aura of beauty. A picturesque pond welcomed me with autumn colored trees around it and the motionless water showed its total reflection. Very beautiful. It’s Bulguksa! As the name indicates, it was designed as a realization of the blissful land of the Buddha in the present world. It was intended to be the happy land where all beings are released from the suffering by following Buddha’s teachings. Meaning, the temple had to be not only faithful to Buddha’s teachings but beautiful as well. It works, I felt it.

I stopped for a while in the gate with four statues of heavenly gods inside as temple’s guardians, watching some Koreans gave a slight bow to each god with both palms met in front of the chest, some others passed as nothing was important. From the gesture and the intimidating stares of the gods, they looked like asking me the reason going to Bulguksa. Hmm.. I thought of this Korean trip. Bulguksa Temple was in my bucket list since my first plan going to South Korea last year. But it’d never happened because of the warming political situation between North and South Korea in the first quarter of 2013. I had to cancel the trip although all was ready. Well, no regret at all, there’s price I had to pay for extending my trip in Japan instead of going to South Korea at that time. Fortunately I got the beautiful chance to go in autumn. In November 2013 my dream came true, arrived in Bulguksa temple, -a complex of beautiful wooden buildings and stone pagodas built upon decorative stone terraces-, and here I was standing on my own feet.

It was a heartwarming moment, like a kid got unexpected gift. I walked slowly, enjoying moments in this representative relic of Gyeongju, and was known worldwide for the amazing details and the touch of stone relics.  In front of my own eyes, I saw the famous White Cloud and Blue Cloud Bridge which are the thirty-three stone-stairs adorned with elaborate railings, -which symbolize the thirty-three heavens-, that originally to reach the elevated compound of the temple.

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Then after a while, avoiding the crowds of people at Tourist Information hut, I went to a small shrine on the right side which was less people visited but interesting. There were stone tub filled with water for purifying all beings before praying. Looking at the tub with lotus petals in each foot and details where the water comes out, reminded me of Yoni, as one pair with Lingam in Hinduism.

I walked slowly and entered the main yard from the right side of the temple. The long wooden terrace was so lovely with adorned detail pillars and roof. I closed my eyes and took a deep breath trying to absorb all the beauty of the temple. My mind was flying back many centuries ago, giving me a flash of its history. Originally called Hwaeombeomnyusa or Beopryusa Temple, a small wooden temple, -built in 528 during the reign of King Beop-Heung-, was for the Queen to pray for the welfare of the kingdom. It took hundreds years to be redeveloped. The current temple was built by Kim Dae-Seong, -a devoted believer and the architect of the original temple with a remarkable eye for beauty and legendary reincarnated into the prime minister-, in 751 during the reign of King Gyeong-Deok and completely built in 774. After that the temple logged a long history of reconstructions and numerous renovations from the Goryeo Dynasty to the Joseon Dynasty included burned down during the Imjin Waeran war following Japanese Invasion in the end of 16th century. Then it was reconstructed again in 1604 during the reign of King Seon-jo of the Joseon Dynasty and had continuous renovation for 200 years.

The chitchat of other visitors woke me up from the daydreaming and realized that I’d been on the land of Seokgamoni Buddha as part of the temple’s main yard. Actually Bulguksa’s cloistered sanctuary is divided into two, the land of Seokgamoni Buddha and the land of Amitabha, means the Buddha of Boundless Light. The land of Seokgamoni Buddha, -the impure land-, is larger and higher than Amitabha’s, the pure one. Some said that Seokgamoni, or Sakyamuni, is praised as the more noble to appear in the mundane world out of his great compassion.

One of the buildings in the land of Seokgamoni Buddha is Daeungjeon, hall of great enlightenment, which enshrines a gilt-bronze Buddha and is the main hall for worshiping. The other important one is  Musolijeon, the Hall of No Discourse, as the lecture hall.

But I was amazed with view in front of me. Between Daeungjeon and Jahamun (Mauve Mist Gate), stand the famous pagodas, Tabotap, the Pagoda of Many Treasures, and the other should be the Seokgatap (the Seokgamoni Pagoda). Unfortunately on my visit, the sacred Seokgatap was being under 3 years restoration.

I walked into the Jahamun, the Mauve Mist Gate that is full of delicate detailed decoration on the wooden roof and pillars. Jahamun was the gate for people to reach Daeungjeon from the outside by using staircases. But considering the age and value, visitors cannot use the staircases anymore.

The staircases, although they are called as bridges, have deep meaning. The staircase which is in the lower part is Cheongungyo or Blue Cloud Bridge and has 17 steps. The staircase which is in the upper part is Baegungyo or White Cloud Bridge and has 16 steps. These staircases symbolically connect the earthly world below and the world of Buddha above. In the other version, some wise people said that the staircases are the symbol of man’s journey from youth to old age.

Back to the land of Seokgamoni Buddha,  among the many treasures of Bulguksa, the famous pagoda pair in the main yard have an unmatched reputation. Seokgatap and Tabotap, have stood for over 12 centuries surviving the flames of war that engulfed all of the temple’s original wooden structures. And it’s surprising me that a legend inspires the arrangement of them. When Seokgamoni preached the Lotus Sutra, the pagoda of Prabhutaratna emerged out of the earth in witness of the greatness and truth of his teaching. Some other said that both pagodas are the manifestations of the Buddha’s contemplation and detachment from the world. Because of the legend and amazing history of them, none of thousands pagodas scattered across South Korea surpass those two pagodas for the philosophical depth. 

Seokgatap

Based on many sources, Seokgatap, or the Seokgamoni Pagoda, represents the finest traditional style of Korean Buddhist pagodas that was inspired from China’s one. As proven by many people, the three-story pagoda is admired for its proportions, simple with minimal decoration but graceful style. Unfortunately I was not able to see the glorious height of Seokgatap because of its current restoration process.  However, during restoration when the second roof was removed, it’s showed a gilt bronze casket containing, for those who believe, was the relics of Sakyamuni.

It was like in 1966, during repairing a collection of precious treasures was found in the Seokgatap. They included a paper scroll of the Pure Light Dharani Sutra, printed between 706 and 751. The scrolling Sutra, 6m long 7cm wide, was one of the world oldest printed materials. The other treasures found were three sets of beautiful decorated relic containers including a gilt-bronze box in elaborate openwork, a gilt-bronze box with a fine engraving of bodhisattvas and heavenly gods, and a glass bottle containing 46 grains of holy relics. No wonder Seokgatap is so sacred.

Beside the sacredness of Seokgatap, I was told about its legend. Among the Koreans, Seokgatap is also called as the Pagoda without Reflection. It referred to the sad legend of Asanyeo, wife of the Asadal, who built this pagoda. The poor woman came to Gyeongju to see her husband as years had gone without any news. At that time, no outsiders were allowed to come into the holy site and she had to wait by a pond near the temple until the the water showed a reflection of the pagoda. But that reflection was never showed up, she gave up waiting in vain and finally she threw herself into the pond.

Tabotap

This beautiful pagoda is symbolizing Prabhutaratna Buddha, -the one that emerged out of the earth in witness of the greatness and truth of Seokgamoni’s teaching. The highly ornate pagoda representing the skill of Silla’s craftsmanship, looks like a shrine with railings supported by a square slab roof on four pillars, and seems unbelievable that was constructed of stone. Those pillars stand on an elevated platform approached by four staircases in each side with 10 steps, symbolizing the 10 paramitas, or great virtues in Buddhism.

Considering the name of Tabotap which is called as Pagoda of Many Treasures, there was no record about the treasures found inside it.

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Slowly I continued to walk to the quietness of the backyard by using a steep stairs. I saw here Gwaneumjeon or Avalokitesvara’s Shrine, the Boddhisattva of Perfect Compassion. It is called as the shrine of the One who Listens to the Cries of the World. I noticed that few people worshiped here. Perhaps it was a good sign that most Koreans had solved their own problems.

From Gwaneumjeon, I had to go downstairs for reaching Birojeon. It was similar with the adjacent building with more people worshiped. Birojeon is the hall in which enshrined the Golden Bronze Vairocana Buddha Sitting Statue, which was believed for the Truth, Wisdom and Cosmic Power. At the corner of Birojeon’s yard, there is a small building which houses the Sarira or Relic Stupa.

Leaving Birojeon then passing the Beophwajeon, -the area of stone foundation-, and my journey in Bulguksa was approaching the land of Amitabha, the pure land with Geungnakjeon or the Paradise Hall as the main hall. From many resources, Amitabha, -who vowed that all who believed in him and   called upon his name would be born into his paradise-, has a broad following among Koreans. It’s proven by lots of fresh beautiful and colorful flowers arranged in front of this hall and of course, the crowds in the Shrine. In front of this main hall, stand the Anyangmun Gate -the Pure Land Gate- and a big golden mouse statue in between.

Similar to Jahamun Gate in the eastern of the temple, Anyangmun Gate in the western part was the gate for people to reach Geungnakjeon from the outside by using staircases. But, again, considering the age and value, of course visitors are not allowed to use the staircases anymore.

These are 18-step stone staircases, the lower part of staircase called Yeonhwagyo or Lotus Flower Bridge and has 10 steps. Long time ago, this staircase was graced by the delicate lotus blossom carvings. The upper part of the staircase called Chilbogyo or Seven Treasure Bridge and has 8 steps. It is said that only those who reached enlightenment could use these stairs. Although these structures are smaller than the eastern one, both are similar in design and structure form.

My journey in Bulguksa was almost completed. I stopped for a minute in a building that stores a big heavy bell. My mind flew back again centuries ago and the sound of the bell heard over every corners of the temple, waking up the monks in grey robe to start the day with their daily routines.

Then I was back again in the front yard of Bulguksa Temple in the western side. From this corner people usually take the picturesque Bulguksa Temple in Autumn, with red and yellow colorful trees. My eyes absorbed the beauty in front of me. This was truly heaven on earth.

From the western corner I walked slowly to face the central façade of the temple. I saw Beomyeongnu or the Overflowing Shadow Pavillion, an elevated center building between Anyangmun and Jahamun Gate and originally constructed in mid of 8th century for placing the Dharma Drum. Its shape represents of Mt. Sumeru, an imaginary mount considered to be in the center of the universe in Buddhist cosmology. The current structure was restored in 1973, which is smaller than the original. Particularly unique are the stacked pillars, using 8 differently nice shaped stones and their placement, facing each of the four cardinal directions. The workers seemed in meditative state when putting the stones into the arrangement. 

Before leaving Bulguksa, I sat facing the temple and enjoyed the view. Closing my eyes and imagined a lotus pond that once existed beneath the staircases leading up to the main courtyard gave a fresh atmosphere. Seems I could smell the fragrance of heaven here…

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